Conversations with a tribal leader from Mindanao reveal new challenges for the Philippines’ indigenous peoples. How do they fare in this age of information and science?
The past week, I covered a national conference attended by 85 tribal leaders representing 39 tribal groups.
It was unlike any conference I’ve ever attended (and I’ve attended a lot). Instead of stiff suits or barong, the delegates wore every color of the rainbow. Many wore beaded headgear or woven shirts. Their clothes jangled and glittered.
The host, himself an Ayta leader, wore a bahag the entire time. And the opening prayer was a lilting hymn of mysterious words that transported me to the mountain forests of the Cordilleras.
Our country’s indigenous peoples (IPs) are around 1/4 of the total population, numbering 14 to 17 million according to the UNDP.
A revolutionary feat of legislation brought about the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997, making the Philippines one of the few countries to recognize its IPs on such a level.
There is a National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) in place to represent their interests in government and to uphold their rights to their land, culture and way of life.
Yet, how well does the rest of the country understand the IPs? They likely reach the consciousness of most city-living Filipinos through tourism ads showcasing their unique culture.
Who hasn’t had a photo with an Ifugao lady in full regalia during a trip to Baguio? Who hasn’t come across indigenous geometric weaving sown into wallets, blouses, even laptop sleeves?
There is so much more to learn about our IPs than these. And in a fast-moving world changing at break-neck speed, there is every danger that we may lose what we can barely understand.
This struck my mind with force while I was talking to Datu Migketay Saway, a leader of the Talaandig tribe in Bukidnon, Mindanao.
Datu Migketay was my seatmate during the conference. Dressed in all red (including the round cap on his head, with beads woven in tiny geometric shapes), he had a grey and black goatee and big, droopy eyes that somehow manage to look stern.
He had been listening intently to the speakers, who all talked about IP management over protected areas – forests, mountains, or bodies of water that held ecological significance. Around 75% of the country’s key biodiversity areas belong to ancestral domains of IPs.
He had one problem with the government’s project of harmonizing IP conservation methods with government methods: which method takes precedence?
“The government should follow the ways of the IP. In fact, [our way] is more effective than the protected area management of the government because it is rooted in our way of life,” he said.
Here is where the difficulty arises.
A team of scientists, usually from the academe, form part of the team that helps the IPs formulate their Community Conservation Plan for the ecologically important areas in their ancestral domain.
The scientists will say that the forest should not be cut to prevent disruption of ecological balance or because there are rare flora and fauna thriving there.
But the IPs will say it should not be cut because doing so would anger the spirit in the forest.
The IPs’ conservation methods would include rituals and animal sacrifice to appease these gods or keep them content.
An NCIP official speaking at the conference admitted this conflict was one of the challenges they faced in a similar project with the Manobos of Agusan Marsh.
And he agreed with Datu Migketay: the IPs should lead the way.
Tide of change
The IPs also have rights to their own judicial system and are able to resolve conflicts through age-old traditions.
But I wonder how this works for transgressors who live outside their system – in short, the rest of the Philippine population?
I asked Datu Migketay what his tribe does when they catch someone trespassing on their ancestral domain. A major telecommunications company, for example, set up a cell site on a mountain within their domain without the tribe’s blessing.
He said that every member of the tribe is considered a forest guard. Those dedicated to the task have cameras they use to catch trespassers red-handed. Most of the time, they are able to talk mildly with the trespasser, impressing on them that permission from the tribe must first be secured.
But what about that telecommunications company that continues to operate the cell site, I asked?
“We have a strong influence on the spirits,” he said with a mischievous glint in his eyes.
The tribe apparently holds a ritual so that the spirits will punish those who trespass on their land repeatedly.
It’s up to the government to deal with the trespasser in their own way, but as far as the tribe is concerned, they did their part.
It’s this way of understanding the world that may make non-IPs see ethnic groups as elusive, mysterious, even alien.
It’s this unique worldview that is also constantly threatened by outside forces.
But let’s not forget that the IPs have resisted all manner of powerful influences throughout Philippine history: from Spanish and American colonialism to globalization to this age of information.
For sure, some things have changed.
Datu Migketay has a Facebook account. There is steady WiFi connection in his tribal village. He reads Rappler. He tells me he has fun reading the comments on our articles.
His kids go to major state universities. His daughter is about to become a lawyer, hopefully, he said, to represent the IPs and get them through the legal jungle of the non-IP world.
Has this changed his tribe? Yes, he said, but not essentially.
“They are just tools. I still practice the way of my tribe. Now I can use these tools to express how I am part of my tribe,” he said.
I came out of our conversation, and out of the conference in general, feeling like I had stumbled upon a great discovery.
We celebrate so much how different, unique, even “exotic,” our country’s IPs are. Perhaps it’s time we celebrate what we have in common.